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Gifts From the Land

By Mariko Kawaguchi

Autumn on Martha’s Vineyard seems to put Islanders into two distinct schools of thought. On the one hand, there are those who are trying to prolong summer days, with family time and access to Vineyard outings. Then there are the individuals who surrender with enthusiasm to thick sweaters, anticipation of fire in the woodstove, and the first frost on the pumpkins. All Islanders seem grateful for the peace and serenity of autumn. Fall images of New England always give top billing to brilliantly colored landscapes on picture postcards. On the Vineyard there’s a contradiction to the bright New England hues we see in calendars and print. Our autumn palette is muted with complex hues that are rich in earth tones. often resembling a Whistler or Wyeth painting.

Autumn is the time from a gardener’s almanac for gathering the harvest from ones garden, drying flowers and seed saving. Now is the time for Yankee traditionalists, modern D.I.Y.ers and Vineyard Wild Food types to gather their gifts from the land.

Taking walks on the Vineyard to see the change of seasons with a friend, a pet or maybe a Fitbit, is a great way to see the subtle “set change” of the Island landscape. Collecting rose hips which can be dried and strung together (like cranberries) for an organic garland; gathering bayberry from thickets to make candles or seasonal decorations; or perhaps harvesting beach plums for preserves or jelly; these are a few of the many autumn Vineyard bounties to be found on the island.

Rose Hips
I remember my first Vineyard autumn and my urban upbringing quickly gave way to a desire for Island made gifts for friends. I harvested beautiful, round, plump rose hips from the beaches edge to make into jam. After receiving many sharp micro fine thorns in my hands, I returned home with a big basket of earthly delights from the Vineyard plant gods. I spent the wee hours cleaning the seeds and fibrous hairs (which can be extremely irritating to sensitive skin-using gloves is helpful) until my harvest of rose hip puree filled my saucepan.

The bayberry shrub (Myrica pensylvanica) can be found on Island in sand dunes, salt marshes, and other seashore areas. The plant is very adaptable to different soil conditions, and the fruit is an important food source for many birds, especially during the migratory months. In Colonial times, the berries were widely used for candles, the most common source of light in that era, according to the National Candle Association. The beautiful fragrance made the candles extremely popular, especially during the winter holidays. However, the process proved to be tedious and labor intensive, owing to the several pounds of berries required to scent just one candle. By the late 18th century, the wax lost favor among colonialists , and was soon replaced by spermaceti, an oil from sperm whales, which were a common sight in these waters at the time. But bayberry never went away, and the candles are still made in smaller batches to this day, often by artisan candlemakers and industrious craft enthusiasts. They continue to be an important part of holiday customs for many. A gift of a bayberry candle is an invitation to participate in the holiday ritual. Lighting a symbolic bayberry candle calls for a recitation of this legendary poem:

This bayberry candle comes from a friend...
So on Christmas eve burn it down to the end.
For a bayberry candle burned to the socket, will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket.

Early autumn is a perfect time to gather the fruit from the rose hips (Rosa rugosa) found along the beaches and shorelines of the Vineyard. The bright orange, yellow and red fruit is hard to miss amid the thorny thickets where they flourish. Although plentiful on the Vineyard, the rose hip is actually native to Asia, and is considered to be an invasive species. The ideal time to harvest the rose hips is after the first frost, which makes the fruit sweeter. But you may wish to start harvesting sooner, as both birds and deer love the fruit as well. Both the fruit and the petals are edible, and while Rose Hips are best known for making delectable jelly, they can also be used to make a healthy tea, sauces, seasonings, and can also be utilized as an astringent. The rose hips make a wonderful addition to holiday wreaths, garlands and arrangements.

Beach Plums
Recently I had the pleasure of stumbling upon a batch of beach plums (Prunus maritima) that were ripe for the picking in a remote part of the Island. Although most of the plums on the Vineyard have been picked by late summer, I was lucky enough to chance upon a woman picking them blissfully in the autumn sun. “The drought we had this summer made them late in fruiting”, explained Caryl Dearing of East Chop. Like fishing enthusiasts, beach plum locations are closely guarded secrets (We promised not to reveal her secret spot). A third generation seasonal resident since childhood, Ms. Dearing has recently retired to the Vineyard, to be near her family, and harvesting the plums is an annual tradition. “When you make the jelly it is important to include all the colors of the fruit. The less ripe fruit has more pectin that will ensure proper setup in the preserves”. Ms. Dearing then asks if I am familiar with the book “Plum Crazy” by Elizabeth Post Mirel, the definitive guide to the fruit. After nodding affirmatively, she tells me that I should make the “Vineyard Tea” recipe, consisting of beach plum jelly, tea and blended whiskey. “It really is a treat, you must try it”, she enthusiastically declares from under the dense undergrowth.

The Vineyard is full of serendipity in all seasons. From Native people foraging for wild food for nutrition and medicinal uses, to the tireless colonists gathering waxy berries to extend their daylight, and entrepreneurs’ like Dr. Fisher in Edgartown helping to ignite a more efficient light in the success of the whaling industry with the new fuel of that era. My search for a cluster of beach plums to photograph for this article was proving fruitless till out of the corner of my eye I located the elusive fruit with a 3rd generation beach plum jelly maker under its branches. “You were God sent” I declared to Ms. Dearing, and I soon had a new Island friend. Making good use of the Island harvest and making a new friend in the process, is one of the many aspects that I love about the Vineyard .